There is a lot to learn about Speedliting. I’ve spent years honing my craft. Yet, I still learn new techniques and come upon new bits of inspiration all the time.

When you are starting out, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are 15 tips about Speedliting that you should know as you start learning to light with small flash. [Confession – you should know two things about me: I’m not known for being concise and I’m not known for thinking like a guy who writes user’s manuals for a living. That said, I promise that the following will help you turn a Speedlite into a tool of personal expression.]

1. Understand that the hotshoe is not the best place for your Speedlite.
I know. You paid good money for your camera and your Speedlite. It’s not that you didn’t get the deluxe hotshoe. You did. It’s just that shooting with a Speedlite in the hotshoe is similar to the lighting used to make driver’s license and passport photos. You cannot create interesting light when the main source of light is parked on top of your camera.

2. To create interesting light, you also need to create interesting shadows.
From your camera’s perspective, shadows that go straight back are invisible. That’s what happens when the Speedlite is in the hotshoe; the shadows go straight back. To make shadows that the camera can see means that they have to go across the photo. This means that your Speedlite needs to be somewhere to the side of your camera and not right on top.

BIG BTW: If you shoot Nikon, here’s your decoder ring for this article: Canon = Nikon, Speedlite = Speedlight, E-TTL = I-TTL. Everything else is exactly the same.

3. Know that the character of the shadows is determined by the size of the light source.
Let’s face it, the front of your Speedlite is smaller than most things that you will point it at, like someone’s face. When the light source is small relative to the size of what is being photographed, the shadows will be hard (meaning that they have distinct, sharp edges). Don’t fret, this is not your Speedlite’s fault. The sun is huge, but seems relatively small in our sky due to Earth’s distance from it. When you walk down a sidewalk on a sunny day, you have a hard shadow. If a layer of clouds drifts in, then they become the apparent light source. Now, because the clouds are much bigger than you, the light will come at you from many angles and your shadow will be very soft. If you want to make your Speedlite seem bigger, you will have to modify it. You can do this by bouncing it off a ceiling or wall. You can fire it into an umbrella or softbox. There are loads of things you can do to make your Speedlite seem bigger. As you noticed, none of these other items were included in the box with your Speedlite. So, you will need to round up a bit more gear. I’ll provided a detailed list in a future article.

4. If everything in your photo is lit evenly, then nothing will stand out.
You, as the Speedliter, have the option of controlling what the viewer concentrates on. You do this by what you light and what you don’t light. When decoding a photograph, our eyes will start with the brightest spot, spiral around the frame, and then settle back on the brightest spot. As a Speedliter, you can control what becomes the brightest spot by where you point and how your modify your Speedlite. I generally want my subject to be the brightest element. So I will often limit what my Speedlite is hitting by putting a snoot or grid on the front. Or I may point my Speedlite so that only the edge of the light hits my subject and the rest flies past onto an area that the camera does not see. Or I might just zoom the flashtube in my Speedlite to 105mm so that it covers a narrow zone. The key here is to not light the whole shot with the same light.

5. Your Speedlite can do a number of different jobs.
It can be the key light, the fill light, or a separation light. As the key light, your Speedlite will be the main light on the subject (but, as discussed in #4, hopefully not on the whole scene). As the fill light, your Speedlite will fill in the shadows that otherwise would be too dark for the camera to record. Canon’s E-TTL system is pretty good at fill light. As a separation light, your Speedlite will come from somewhere behind your subject for the purpose of creating a bright line of light along one side of your subject so that it stands out from the background.

6. The distance between your Speedlite and subject is another way to control the brightness of your Speedlite.
Here’s a fact that you already know: when you hold a flashlight close to something the beam is brighter than when the flashlight is farther way. The same is true with Speedlites. The closer the Speedlite is to the subject, the brighter it appears. As you move the Speedlite away, it appears to get dimmer. For consistent results, especially when doing a series of test shots, put your on a stand and keep it the same distance from the subject. Also, remember that the farther back you put a light source, the smaller it appears to the subject. Smaller sources have harder shadows.

7. The distance between your camera and the subject does not affect the exposure.*
This one can be a mind-twiser. Let me explain. Imagine that you have a subject standing 10’ from a light stand. You make an exposure from 5’ away. It’s a nice shot. So, now you move back 15’. Your exposure from farther back will essentially be the same as the previous shot. Why? The distance between the light and the subject has not changed. So the same amount of light is hitting the subject. (*Assuming that your Speedlite is not parked on top of your camera.)

8. Your Speedlite can operate in E-TTL mode and in Manual mode. Some also have a Stroboscopic mode.
E-TTL is Canon’s proprietary system where the camera and flash work together automatically to set the power level on the flash. It’s fantastic technology. It’s also a source of great frustration when the camera makes decisions that you do not understand or agree with. In Manual mode, you turn the power level up or down via controls on the back of the Speedlite. The 200-series and 430-series go from 1/1 down to 1/64. The 580-series run from 1/1 down to 1/128. Many photographers, pros included, never feel the need to grow beyond Manual mode. I certainly hope that you will master it and then see it as just another technique in the lighting toolbox. Stroboscopic mode is available on the 580-series only. You could use it to create one of those time-lapse-in-one-frame photos of a golfer swinging a club or a gymnast flying around the uneven bars.

9. Manual mode is the place to start when learning about flash photography.
When starting out, there is nothing like turning the power up and down and seeing the results of your actions. You may feel like you are bumbling at first, but you’ll grow to understand the process and develop some finesse. One tip when shooting in Manual mode: if don’t know where to set the power to begin, start with it at 1/8. That’s half way down the scale.

10. E-TTL and Manual both have their strengths.
E-TTL is amazing technology. I use it anytime that the distance between the subject and the Speedlite(s) is dynamic. I also use it when I want to control the power of Speedlites via Canon’s built-in wireless system. Manual is great for situations where the distance between your Speedlite and subject does not change. I just Manual when I’m shooting tabletop (still-lifes, food, product, etc.). Also, if you need to squeeze every photon out of your Speedlite, shoot in Manual. The E-TTL pre-flash actually chews up a bit of power.

11. When starting out, going off-camera with a cord is easier than going wireless.
There’s no doubt that you have to get your Speedlite off-camera. When you are just learning the basics, using a long cord is better than using wireless triggers. Why? The triggers add a new layer of complexity. My view is that you should control one skill set before moving on.

12. Find your exposure for the ambient light first.
Ambient light, the light that is there already, typically cannot be controlled or modified. So I deal with it by taking a series of non-Speedlite shots to determine what exposure gives the ambient the quality that I’m looking for it to have. Often I will underexpose the ambient because I want to direct the viewer’s eye to the subject.

13. Don’t try to change too many things a once. In the beginning, two is too many.
New Speedliters often make the mistake of trying to change too many things at once: like moving the light stand, re-setting the power level and zooming the flash. Then, when the resulting pic does not look like the expectation, it’s hard to know what to change. Built your shots in steps. Find the exposure for the ambient light. Set your Speedlite. Worry about it’s position and modification first. Get it to go where you want and to have the shadow quality that you want first. Then futz with the power level. If you are using multiple Speedlites, go for your ambient exposure. Set and tune your key light. Then work on the fill light. Then work on the rim light. It’s not uncommon on a professional shoot to do all of this on an assistant who is about the same size as the subject. Then the subject is called from his busy schedule and stands for the shots for just a few minutes.

14. Aperture controls flash exposure. Shutter controls ambient. Say this 1000 times.
Here is a secret that should not be a secret: the power level of your Speedlite is really the duration of the flash. The difference between 1/1 and 1/8 is that the electrons flow through the flash tube at 1/1 for a longer period of time than at 1/8. It’s not that the flash gets brighter. It just stays lit longer. At 1/1, a 580EX fires for about 1/850”. At 1/64 that drops to about 1/31,000”. So it does not matter if the shutter is open for 1/160” or for 1/2”, the flash still flies through in an instant. As long as the sync speed for your camera is not exceeded, then shutter speed has no effect on flash exposure. When it comes to ambient light, shutter speed has a direct effect. Ambient light is continuous light: from the sun, lights in the room, etc. If you go from a shutter speed of 1/30” to 1/60”, then you have just cut the amount of ambient light getting through the lens by half. Aperture has a huge effect on flash exposure. At any given power level, if you go from f/8 to f/11, you have just cut the amount of flash getting through the lens by half. Likewise, if you go from f/8 to f/5.6, the amount of flash getting through has just doubled. In a practical sense, the thing to remember is that if you want more ambient light in your exposure, then you have to use a longer (aka: slower) shutter speed. If you want to dim the ambient more, then you have to use a shorter (aka: faster) shutter speed. In either instance, your flash exposure would not change significantly, if at all.

15. The best way to start learning is by making mistakes lots of them.
As an new Speedliter, you will make loads of mistakes. Guess what, as an experienced Speedliter you will make loads of mistakes. Don’t be freaked out or embarrased. The more mistakes you make, the fewer you’ll have left to do in the future.


41 Responses to 15 Insights For A New Speedliter

  1. Amber Shomo says:

    I am eating this stuff up! Thanks for your willingness to share. I’m so glad I found you on twitter.

  2. truckdriver says:

    Thanks Syl. Thank goodness for digital. I could not afford the film and processing cost of really learning to use my 580 EX II.

  3. Graham says:

    Great material here! I especially love tip 14.

  4. Jason says:

    Hi, new reader here. Found you through the camera dojo podcast. excellent stuff on this sight. i loved tip 14 most specifically. im thinking of pulling the trigger on your workshop at adorama when you are in nyc. will it cover in-home family portraiture and suggested setups?


  5. Deadeyedan says:

    Your grasp of teaching us newbies your craft is uncanny. I really do appreciate your knowledge of the use of speedlites. I know your new book will be very sucsessful. You deserve it. Now if I could only buy a signed copy. Better yet, I'll sign up for your tour in Bethesda, MD.

  6. Ian says:

    thanks for this, syl! i found out about your site from joe mcnally’s blog. i’m a canon shooter unfamiliar with flashes and planning to buy speedlites to take my photography to the next level.

    i know i’ll be learning a lot from this website. keep it up!

  7. Vivian says:

    Eagerly awaiting Part 2. I'm a devotee of Joe McNally but he's all Nikon and I'm all Canon. Really glad you are here for us Canonistas.

  8. [...] 15 Insights For A New Speedliter | Speedliting (tags: speedlite canon flash) [...]

  9. Bo Vejgaard says:

    Hi Syl,

    More nice information from your hands, but it would be even nicer if you took the Speedliter's Intensive on a European tour that came by Copenhagen Denmark. I know we are tons of Canon shooters in Denmark. Around 14.000 registered users of Canons EOS user forum in Danish.


  10. tim says:


    Thank you for this site, your contribution through numerous podcasts and the books you have released. I can not WAIT until the Speedlite book comes out. I am looking forward to learning more about grouping, slaving and getting the strobes to talk to each other in tricky spaces. Have you done an article on this already?

    Thank you again for all that you are doing!!!!!

    I predict this will not only prove to be an invaluable resource for canon users, but will also have an impact on future canon speedlites as they will certainly be watching and listening to the plea of this sites readership.

  11. Tom says:

    Syl, I have heard you interviewed on couple of podcasts and looked up your website. What a gold mine. Thank you for sharing and I can't wait for more.

  12. Derrick says:

    Tried to register for the NYC class and its sold out. Will there be any additional seats added. I can't believe I will be missing this boat……=(

    Love your site. Thanks.


    • Syl Arena says:

      There is a waiting list for the NYC workshop. Call the Workshops at Adorama and ask to be put on it. I'll be teaching in DC/Bethesda on May 8/9 and in Boston on June 19. Maybe you want to take a roadtrip?

  13. Tiago says:

    Great site Syl,

    heard about you on TWiP podcast in a great interview and I'm very glad to see this much information shared.

    Regards from Portugal. Thanks

  14. Philip says:

    Thanks Syl, heard you on PhotoFocus pod cast and you mentioned this site, it is just what I'm looking for to improve my architectural photography.
    Thanks for the site.
    Roatan Island

  15. Matthew says:

    This is all fantastic stuff. Thanks so much for sharing Syl I like your method of teaching.

  16. George Lien says:

    Canon needs to pay you. :D

    I switched from Canon to Nikon at the end of 2008 due to its D700.

    My first Canon was the EOS 20D with Speedlites from 2x 580ex, 2x 430ex to 2x 580ex II.

    Thanks to your appearance in TWIP and this blog, I plan to buy back to the Canon camp again.

    Next stop, Canon EOS 7D and three 580ex II.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with the world.


    George Lien

    Taipei, TAIWAN

  17. Gary says:

    Thanks so much for simplifying everything… Making the most of my 580EX2 and ttl cable which I have just extended. Your sites been a massive help!

  18. Bill says:

    Finally, some love for us Canon shooters. Thank you very much for providing your lovely insights on flash photography for us Canon shooters. Looking forward to more great stuff.

  19. hfng says:

    Wonderful site!!! But I still don't get this:

    "The distance between your camera and the subject does not affect the exposure."

    Surely there is loss of light as the reflected light travels between the subject and the camera?

    • Syl Arena says:

      hfng – Try this:

      1. Set you camera to Spot Meter.
      2. Now find a brightly illuminated wall with an even texture and color.
      3. Take a meter reading from 50cm away (make sure your shadow does not interfere).
      4. Now walk 4m back (or farther) and take another meter reading. Make sure that the Spot zone is still the same part of the wall you metered in step one.
      5. Did the meter reading change?

      According to the Inverse Square Law, going from 50cm to 4m is the equivalent of a 9-stop change in distance (one distance x 1.4 = 1-stop). Yet, I'll bet that there was not a significant difference in your meter readings. Why? The distance from the sun to the wall is not significantly different than the distance from the sun to the wall plus the distance from the wall to your camera.

  20. hfng says:

    Aperture controls flash exposure and ambient.

    • Syl Arena says:

      hfng -

      Aperture does control flash and ambient. But do not overthink it. The assumption is that if you change the aperture to change the amount of flash getting through, then you will make an off-setting change to shutter to keep the ambient the same. Yet, if you change the shutter speed to increase or decrease the amount of ambient, you do not have to change the aperture to keep the flash the same.

  21. erniestripling says:

    Thank you very much for your patience in teaching the masses. I really enjoy the step-by-step approach. There are a lot of people just beginning the digital camera profession and some may think Star Trek when you mention Photons. Keep up your great work!!

  22. Thanks! I will be using this a lot once I have saved up enough for a Speedlite lol.

  23. Paul says:

    great article, well written in an easy format for new speed users.


  24. BillCMartin says:

    I've had a Canon 430EX flash for several years to use with my DSLR and the results were always rubbish until I started reading, understanding and trying your suggestions – just a few weeks back. I've now ordered a second flash – a 580EX II – to use with a lightstand, umbrella and an Interfit Strobies Portrait kit and some gels. I've certainly got the bug and am having a great time exploring and learning, still getting more mistakes than successes, but learning from all of them. In a few weeks I hope to put a few of my attempts on my flickr site. Thank you for sharing all your knowledge in such a generous way. It really makes a difference!

  25. Peezo says:

    This is by far the best site on the net for budget lighting and education on speedlighting. Everywhere on the net people are screaming, "spend ?? hundred dollars on this and that" and nobody is explaining how to make the most of what we novice photographers already have. Personally, in three months I've spent almost 1200 dollars on camera, lenses, and my 430ex (all money I have since made back), however $1200 bucks in photography is the equivalent to a beginner budget and I am determined to get the most out of the cash I've already forked out. Of course I'll be spending more money in the future but I'm glad you guys have this site to let ppl know that it's not all about how much equipment you have, but how you use that equipment. All I have to say is THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. This site is awesome and I will log on everyday

  26. Chris says:

    Great stuff! I have a question about #14, though. How does iso work in to the equation? I took a group picture in a poorly lit warehouse last night. I decided to cancel out any ambient light by setting my shutter speed to 1/125 and I went with f/5.6 to get enough depth of field to get the whole group in focus. I then just dialed the iso up and down while taking test shots and settled on 200, which looked "about right" at the time. I'm very new to speedlighting and honestly this was just a guess. The shadows were horrible (I was using 2 un-modified Canon flashes, one on the hotshoe and one at camera left) but the exposure was pretty close.

  27. [...] Syl Arena: Deciding how to start with off-camera speedliting Part one (also 15 insights for a new Speedliter) [...]

  28. Kadri says:

    shutter speed controls ambient, and aperture controls both flash exposure and ambient. it seems like all of those making lighting books and workshop DVDs have bought or watched Zack Arias One Light DVD .

  29. Jeet says:

    Hi! Your knowledge is commendable and thanks so much for sharing this knowledge with us. I have a question, I am shooting with a Vivitar Speedlite. Previously I used to break the Speed Sync Barrier (my Speed sync on my Canon 1000D is 1/200) by going ahead with 250 or even 320. i used to get a slight black band on the side of the frame at 320 which was negligible as i used to crop the frame later, but now when i shoot at 320 i am getting a prominent black band which covers almost half the frame. I am planning to buy a CANON Speedlite 430 EX. Will i be able to shoot at higher shutter Speeds above 200, ie 320,500,800…with High speed Sync… Please Guide. Best Regards.

    • Syl Arena says:

      Jeet – High-Speed Sync will allow you to shoot at high shutter speeds with flash. You need to pair your Canon Speedlite with a Canon camera to activate this function. HSS consumes 2.5 stops of flash power. So, you'll need to use your flash in close. Good luck!

  30. Jeet says:

    Hi! you have provided loads of knowledge on Off Camera Flash lighting, I am planning to buy a 430EX II and wanted to know if I can trigger it in "HYPERSYNC" mode at higher Shutter speeds of 2000,4000 with any Radio Trigger like a Youngnou, Cactus or Cheap eBay ones… (Not Pocketwizards, Those are way too expensive, I can buy another Canon 580EX II instead of PWs). Please throw some light… Cheers !!!

    • Syl Arena says:

      Jeet – The inexpensive triggers you mention will not provide high-speed sync (or something slower, like "hypersync"). My suggestion, when you can, buy a second Speedlite so that you can shoot wireless. In the meantime, you could also check out the extra-long ETTL cords sold by my little venture OCF Gear. One of these cords will give you the ability to do high-speed sync and off-camera flash at the same time. Good luck.

  31. Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Pretty helpful to me and I am positive to all the commenters here It is always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained Im positive you had fun writing this post.

  32. Lara says:

    Hi Syl,

    Just learning speedliting and am so grateful for your teaching. I may be asking a question you have answered before, but I can’t seem to find the answer anywhere. I understand that you recommend using a long sync cord, but I have a 60D (that seems to promote the progression into wireless shooting). I know that there are adapters to allow a sync cord, but I would like to “cut the cord”, so to speak, and benefit from the usefulness of radio triggers.

    I would like to use a radio trigger to kick off a 580EX II and then have the 580EX II trigger one or more 430EX II (without needing to attach a radio receiver to each of the slaves), so that I can group flashes in a softbox and cut down on the number of receivers required. I am using a cheap Stratto II, which works but the slave flash is delayed. Am I correct in guessing that a Radio Popper would have the ability/power to get all of the flashes synced together? I would rather spend my money on extra flashes rather than a receiver for each flash.

    Thank you so much for your help!

    • Syl Arena says:

      Lara – What you are describing is a relay, which is not part of the functionality of RadioPoppers. Their system is based on having a master Speedlite in the hotshoe with a transmitter and then a receiver attached to each slave Speedlite.

  33. [...] So, repeat after me: Shutter speed controls ambient and aperture controls flash! Again, and again until it comes out of your mouth automatically! (Check point #14 on this page: [...]

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